After Vladimir Putin’s speech, in which he announced the partial mobilization due to the “special military operation”, as Moscow still calls the war in Ukraine, and the position that he is not bluffing about the use of weapons of mass destruction, the debate about danger of a nuclear conflict has “ignited” again.
One of the questions is how the US, which has been sending private messages to Russia about nukes for months, will react. At the same time, analysts such as Matthew Kroenig are suggesting ways to deal with Putin’s Russia.
The former CIA official and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security has published his own position in Memo to the President.
It is worth noting that Kroenig has served in the US Department of Defense and Intelligence under the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, specializing in Middle East and Nuclear and Missile Defense strategies.
He argues that Russia may use nukes if the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to achieve its goals and the Kremlin realizes it may lose the war.
In such a case, the Kremlin will advance its strategic goals, undermine US interests globally and inevitably cause a humanitarian catastrophe the likes of which has not been seen since 1945, he notes.
Kroenig emphasizes the need for a targeted deterrence strategy to prevent a potential disaster.
What the US should do according to Kroenig
According to the former US official, the US should issue public, but deliberately vague threats that will speak of serious consequences if Russia uses nukes. At the same time, the US should be ready to deal a conventional military blow to Russian forces.
Nuclear threats are at the core of Russia’s military strategy, and no one can rule out a nuclear attack on Ukraine, the analysis notes.
Russia’s so-called “escalate-to-de-escalate” strategy calls for nuclear threats and, if necessary, limited use of nuclear weapons in order to end the conflict on favorable terms for Moscow.
Russia has long used dual-capable weapons (which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads) against Ukraine and has conducted exercises with its nuclear forces, thereby sending signals to the West and the US.
As Croning notes, Russia has a wide range of options for conducting non-strategic nuclear attacks where it could use one or more of the thousands of low-yield nuclear weapons it already possesses against targets such as Ukrainian forces, bases, warehouses, even and cities.
But even a small-scale attack, apart from the humanitarian devastation, would neutralize the Ukrainian military and force it to capitulate, harm US interests and divide the Western alliance, the analysis points out.
Also, even limited use of nuclear weapons would break a decades-old taboo and encourage other international players with nuclear weapons to consider using them to achieve their goals.
Moreover, such a development could lead to a nuclear arms race.
A clearer deterrent threat
To deter Russia from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the United States should issue a clearer deterrence threat, Kroenig stresses. Essentially, the US could choose to move between vague and specific threats to Moscow, communicated publicly or privately as appropriate.
At the moment it is believed that Putin believes he could use nuclear weapons without facing any significant deterrent or response from the West, so a clearer Western stance could potentially act as a deterrent. In this case the USA should, if they say something, do it.
But how could the USA react in case of nuclear use by Russia on the territory of Ukraine? There are two scenarios according to the columnist of the Atlantic Council.
Escalating sanctions and further isolating Moscow. At the same time, equipping Ukraine with modern weapon systems and military reinforcement of Eastern Europe.
- The use of nukes could also be an opportunity to persuade countries that have so far been reluctant – such as India and possibly even China – to take part in escalating sanctions against Russia.
- The United States could provide Ukraine with more advanced weapons to strike deeper into Russian territory, but also help Ukrainian units operate in a nuclear environment. This may include providing iodine pills, radiation protection suits, Geiger counters and other related equipment.
- Also the United States and NATO could strengthen their military position in Eastern Europe, with the presence of more and more heavily armed forces.
- They could also install nuclear weapons in Poland, but also announce the development of additional types of low-yield nuclear weapons in Europe, such as the development of Standoff Air-to-Surface Missiles (JASSM) or Ground-Ground Missiles (GLCM).
Based on this scenario, the United States in a state of nuclear alert and to prevent possible nuclear attacks against its NATO allies could openly and not covertly equip its bombers with nuclear warheads and also deploy in various areas their nuclear submarines.
The author of the letter to Joe Biden then presents the pros and cons of this scenario.
The advantages: These steps would impose costs on Russia and at the same time Washington could reasonably claim to have followed through on its deterrent threat.
The disadvantages: It runs the risk that many friends and foes will see these measures as an inadequate response to a nuclear attack.
Should Russia use nukes, the United States could respond with military force, the second scenario notes.
In particular, the United States could conduct a limited conventional strike on Russian forces or Russian military bases that would be directly involved in this attack. Even the US could fight alongside the Ukrainians.
The advantages: Immediate US military intervention could be widely perceived as a substantial deterrence response that would potentially redress the balance and restore the decades-long taboo of nuclear terror.
- A US military response increases the risk of escalation and could lead to an immediate Russia-NATO war.
- Also, Russia may conclude that the United States is unwilling to use nuclear weapons, and this may act as an incentive for
- additional nuclear strikes.
Another negative parameter is that in the event that the US responds to a nuclear attack with conventional means, it may create insecurity among some allies who will consider it as an inadequate response.
In case of use of nuclear weapons by Russia, the United States could retaliate by using nuclear weapons, thus acting as a deterrent to the possibility of further nuclear use by Moscow.
The advantages: A US nuclear response is very likely to act as a deterrent, reassure allies, and restore the global taboo against nuclear use in the future by sending the message that no state can use nuclear weapons without suffer the consequences.
The disadvantages: If the US decides to nuke Russia it will inevitably be faced with the dilemma of which target to hit and with which nuclear weapon.
Also, a US nuclear strike could lead to Russia retaliating and retaliating, which would lead to an escalation with unforeseeable consequences and would certainly bring about a great humanitarian disaster.
In conclusion, Kroenig believes that the best US response, should deterrence not work, is a combination of Scenario One and Option 2A.
Namely: Escalation of sanctions and further isolation of Moscow. At the same time, equipping Ukraine with modern weapon systems and military reinforcement of Eastern Europe.
Along with an intensification of ongoing efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and a limited conventional strike against Russian forces or the bases from which the nuclear attack was carried out.
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